It came without Sid, but it came with a Staal (in fact, three Staals.) It game with Geno. With James. And with Paul. Game 48 concluded the regular season with the Penguins facing-off against the Carolina Hurricanes. With the Penguins playoff spot clinched, along with home ice advantage, and the Canes being out of the post-season, the game was more for posterity and the extra points. It saw the return of former Penguins Jordan Staal to the Consol Energy Center and for the first time in his career, it would be his last game of the season.
The first ten minutes of the first period passed without much incident, both teams sharing an even tilt of the ice surface although Pittsburgh appeared to be controlling more of the play. With 10:28 left in the frame, Carolina’s Eric Staal was whistled for a slash, sending Pittsburgh to the power play. It took the Penguins just over thirty-seconds to capitalize on the man advantage, the goal coming courtesy of Evgeni Malkin. With a play that started by a save from Marc-Andre Fleury, Malkin and linemate James Neal carried the puck down the ice where Malkin was able to whip it into the netting behind goaltender Justin Peters for the tally. Paul Martin was whistled for a delay of game when the puck was sent over the boards and into the crowd but the Penguins had no problems killing it off. The Canes would be given another man advantage when Douglas Murray earned two minutes for holding but they couldn’t capitalize on that one either. After twenty, the Penguins held a 1-0 lead while outshooting the Canes 11 to 5.
A minute into the second period, the Penguins would head to the penalty kill when Jarome Iginla was called for a hook. The Canes power play, however, lasted a minute before Tuomo Ruutu was whistle for a trip, sending the teams to some 4-on-4 hockey. Both penalties expired without incident, but merely two-seconds after the Penguins power play ended, it was James Neal giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead. Neal’s shot went rooftop over Peters, finding the netting and setting off the goal light. Carolina earned their first of the night with 12:30 off the clock through the second frame courtesy of a goal by Kevin Westgarth. Westgarth was able to stuff a rebound past Fleury, cutting the Penguins lead in half. Four minutes later, Jussi Jokinen increased the Penguins led by two again after picking up his own rebound and beating Peters with a goal from an awkward angle. The lead, however, was short lived, as Carolina would score two quick goals – one from Ruutu and Westgarth’s second of the night, tying the game with just over two minutes left to go in the middle frame. They would remain tied at three through the second horn.
Mere minutes into the third, Carolina believed they had pulled ahead of Pittsburgh courtesy of Jamie McBain. However, the goal was immediately waved off as Jared Staal had interfered with Fleury in the process. That opened up the opportunity for James Neal’s second of the night, pulling the Penguins ahead by a goal with 18:24 left in regulation. Neal’s shot went top shelf on Peters and the goalie didn’t even have a chance. He wasn’t done. A just over two and a half minutes later, he’d earn a hat trick, pulling the Penguins ahead 5 to 3. Evgeni Malkin left the puck in the neutral zone for Chris Kunitz, allowing a two-on-one to develop courtesy of Malkin and Neal. Malkin would pass the puck to Neal who had nothing but empty net. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Brenden Morrow notched one of his own, increasing Pittsburgh’s lead by 3. Morrow sent the puck to Matt Cooke as they entered the zone and continue to drive forward. Cooke sent the puck on to Brandon Sutter who sent it back to Morrow who buried it behind Peters for the goal. With 14:36 left to go, the Penguins held a 6 to 3 lead. Carolina earned a man advantage when Morrow was whistled for a hi-stick but the Canes couldn’t capitalize. The Pens lead would increase to four with their seventh goal with less than five minutes on the clock courtesy of Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis would earn one of his own with less than minute left in regulation, the final score of the final game of the regular season reading 8 to 3 in favour of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kris Letang led all skaters with 23:34 of ice time while Paul Martin, in his first game back since March, followed with 23:31. James Neal had 8 shots on goal while Chris Kunitz had 5. James Neal had a four point night with three goals and assist while Evgeni Malkin earned three points of his own with a goal and two assists. Marc-Andre Fleury, earning his second assist of the season, faced 30 shots while Justin Peters faced 35.
The Penguins continue to be without Sidney Crosby. Crosby, out for a month following taking a slapshot to the face at the end of March, has begun to practice with the team and while there is no immediate time table for his return, he has not been written off for the first round of the playoffs just yet. James Neal and Paul Martin both returned to the lineup this evening, Neal missing eight games as the result of a concussion and Martin having missed the last month or so following an injury to his hand. Brooks Orpik and Joe Vitale, however, were held out of the game, both with lower body injuries.
See you all in the playoffs.